What is fonio? The grain set to become the superstar of sustainable brewing

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/karisssa
Pic:getty/karisssa

Related tags millets Climate change Ancient grains Sustainability Brewing Beer

A global collaboration of brewers – including Brooklyn Brewery, Carlsberg and Guinness – is showcasing the ancient West African grain fonio. What’s so special about the grain – and how can it transform brewing for the better?

What is fonio?

White fonio (Digitaria exilis) is a grass from the Poaceae family grown for its grain. Growing up to 30-80cms, it has blade-like leaves, and produces grains on spikelets with grain on branched, spike-like panicles.

It has been a staple in West African communities for some 5,000 years, especially in rural areas, where it holds an important place in traditions and cultural heritage.

But it also has a rapidly expanding export market to Europe and the US, where it is sold as a gluten-free, low glycemic superfood (and a good source of fiber, iron, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium and antioxidant flavonoids; as well as being particularly high in the amino acids methionine and cysteine) and marketed in a similar way to quinoa.

Why is fonio an important grain?

What makes fonio a win-win crop is that it is a nutrient-packed grain with strong resilience to varying climatic situations and ability to thrive in less fertile soils. It requires little in the way of irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides or other chemical inputs.

Despite these advantages, it has often been undervalued – one of the reasons it has not been considered competitive against commodity crops in mainstream agriculture. As a result, it’s received little attention from researchers or policymakers.

Millet crops (including fonio) have been highlighted for their potential to strengthen food security against future climates: because of their climate resilient traits, reduced need for fertilisers and rich nutritional profile.

But this lack of large-scale production might now prove to be an advantage for fonio.

Global supply chains rely on a small number of commercial crops, such as wheat, maize and Asian rice (accounting for nearly 50% of daily calorie consumption worldwide).

Through domestication and commercial breeding, these crops have lost vital genetic diversity and may not remain resilient in drought-prone areas or to other challenges posed by climate change. Fonio, however, retains genetic diversity that has been lost in other grains: meaning farmers can select the best type for the climatic conditions in their own region.

Furthermore, fonio supports soil regeneration while being a vital source of income for small-holder farms in West Africa: which are often female-led.

What does fonio bring to beer flavor?

US craft beer superstar Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver began pioneering fonio brewing in 2019: with releases such as Fonio Rising.

Oliver’s brewing exploration with fonio was inspired by esteemed Senegalese Chef Pierre Thiam, whose New York fonio pioneer company Yolélé has helped promote fonio to the Western world.

Captivated by Thiam's TED talk, Oliver saw the potential of fonio and embarked on a mission to create beers with the grain.

"The fonio that we're using, from Yolélé, is very easy to use in brewing," Oliver told us. "It's already been de-hulled, it requires no milling, and it's been pre-steamed, so the starch is already gelatinized. In the brewhouse, you're basically rehydrating it and then going straight into saccharification. We usually add it during the last saccharication rest in the mash; we find that we get the best flavors and aromas that way."

brooklyn brewing for impact inset 1
Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery

As a grain, fonio is known for its 'nutty' taste - but that's not the flavor it imparts to beer, explains Oliver.

"Fonio tastes 'nutty' when eaten like couscous (which it resembles on the plate), but it doesn't really bring that flavor to beer. Instead it brings tropical fruity wine-like flavors reminiscent of sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer - lychee fruit, gooseberry, mango, etc.

"It also gives a soft, round, silky mouthfeel to beers.

"The fonio 'signature' flavors are always recognizable, and they don't seem to be yeast strain-dependent, so the flavors show up as strongly in lagers as they do with warmer fermentations. In a pale ale, those aromatics are a great compliment to dry hop aromatics; in a pilsner, they bring a really nice lilt of fruit to the profile.

"People often say “Wow, this kinda smells like white wine”, and they like that!"

Brewing up change: Guinness, Carlsberg and more

Oliver now sees his 30th​ anniversary with Brooklyn Brewery as the time to start promoting the grain on a larger scale: creating an industry-first global collaboration with breweries from around the world to highlight fonio’s ‘untapped brewing potential’.

The ‘Brewing for Impact’ initiative​ sees breweries from seven countries, including global industry leaders like Brooklyn Brewery, Carlsberg and Guinness, come together to create a series of limited-edition beers that will spotlight fonio's qualities.

The collaboration started in Senegal, with Maison Kalao.

To Oliver's surprise, enlisting the help of the big guns was not difficult.

"Once people tasted the beers and understood what a paradigm shift fonio could represent for brewing, everybody was interested," he said.

"I think Carlsberg pretty much convinced themselves by making a 100% fonio beer that was fantastic - it's perfectly clear and has stone fruit flavors that are somewhere between Champagne and sake. We can't wait to see where they can take it. Guinness is already strongly engaged in Africa and is excited to learn more about what fonio can do."

The collaborations, listed in order of their release, are as follows:

  • April - ​​Maison Kalao​​ (Senegal):​​ The 'Brooklyn A Dakar' Pilsner is the latest from a newer lineage of fonio beers at Maison Kalao, initiated after witnessing Oliver's use of the grain grown in their own country.
  • May - ​​Thornbridge​​ (UK):​​  Thornbridge Brewery introduces the world's first Pale Ale – Cask Beer made with fonio. 
  • June - ​​Omnipollo​​ (Sweden):​​ Omnipollo’s 'Blacker Chocolate Stout' reimagines the first beer Oliver ever brewed for Brooklyn Brewery - 'Black Chocolate Stout' - with a focus on fonio's sustainability.
  • July - ​​Carlsberg​​ Laboratory (Denmark):​​ The launch of a 100% fonio beer in July is a collaboration with Carlsberg Research Lab​​.
  • August - ​​Russian River​​ (US):​​ Russian River’s Fonio Belgian blonde ale emerges from the deep friendship between Garrett and the owners of Russian River, Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo.
  • September - ​​Brooklyn Brewery​​ (US): ​​Brooklyn Brewery adds to its fonio beer lineup with a new pale ale brewed with fonio.
  • October - ​​Jing-A​​ (China): ​​Releasing in October, the West Coast IPA made with fonio underscores a unique connection between Oliver and Jing-A - who first introduced Garrett to Beijing's brewing culture - while exploring the historical significance of native grains like fonio.
  • November - ​​Guinness​​ (US):​​ Guinness's 'Fonio Stout', launching in November, highlights Oliver's long-time respect for the brand - which has deep roots in Africa and around the world - and reflects his personal ties to Ireland.

Can fonio transform beer?

The question, of course, is whether supply of fonio - a little known grain - can meet Oliver's bold ambitions and become a realistic, large-scale option.

While it might not match the might of commercial grains, it does punch its weight against similar grains. And work is under way to scale up production.

"At a current 700,000 tons per year, African fonio production massively outstrips 'sustainable barley' production, at least so far," said Oliver.

"The work that Yolélé West Africa is doing will allow fonio to scale up in a big way, as they’re automating the de-husking and cleaning of the grain, which was the big bottleneck in the past.

"The automation will also decrease processing losses from close to 50% when hand-cleaning to nearly zero with automated cleaning.

"Because fonio requires no irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides or fungicides, it makes land that has been considered “non-arable” productive. So there’s huge upside potential."

"Of course, without sufficient demand, we’re not going to see these resources developed, so there is a “chicken and egg” dynamic here.

By showcasing fonio, Brooklyn Brewery - and its global beer heavyweight partners - believe they can start to create the demand needed to fuel fonio's development.

"By creating demand in the brewing space, we hope to kick-start the upscaling of production to levels where this is a crop that major international brewers can easily make part of their total grain portfolio, spreading risk, creating great flavors, lowering our environmental impacts and bringing economic security to thousands of smallhold African farmers," said Oliver.

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